In his 1903 masterpiece The Soul of Black Folks W.E.B. Du Bois expounded his famous concept of the ‘double consciousness’ of African American citizens in the book’s first chapter On Our Spiritual Strivings:
After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,--a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,--an American, a Negro; two warring souls, two thoughts, two un-reconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,--this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self.
African American artists—especially those highlighted in ‘Spiral: Perspectives on an African American Art Collective’ at the Studio Museum in Harlem—inherited the same veil of consciousness, the same second-sight but instead applied to their roles as artists in an overly represented white artistic community. ‘Spiral’ contends with individuals whose consciousness extended—and merged— their identity as African Americans, Modern artists, teachers and civil rights activists. As Du Bois trenchantly examined sixty years before ‘Spirals’ existence, African American artists in America negotiated their own ‘twoness’ as black, as artists, and as black artists.
‘Spiral’ was a short lived African American art collective active from 1963 to 1965. Founding members constituted the vanguard of mid-century African American Modernism including Romare Bearden, Charles Alston, Norman Lewis and Hale Woodruff. Membership eventually spread to Emma Amos (the sole woman of the group), Calvin Douglas, Perry Ferguson, Reginald Gammon, Feirath Hines, Alvin Hollingsworth, William Majors, Richard Mayhew, Earl Miller, Merton D. Simpson and James Yeargans. Discussions in the group centered on the intersection of art and politics: what role does race play in the evaluation of their artwork? What role does subject matter play in their work? How can abstraction add a significant voice to the civil rights struggle? How should artists of color construct and maintain their identity in an overtly racist America, including the art world? The ‘Spiral’ artists came to the group at a crossroads in their careers. Bearden had begun to experiment with a collage aesthetic for which he would become famous while Norman Lewis, Hale Woodruff and Charles Alston had already been painting in Abstract Expressionist inspired styles throughout the forties and fifties.
Romare Bearden formed the original group in 1963 to discuss artist’s roles in the upcoming ‘March on Washington’ led by Dr. King. Soon the group’s membership expanded and installed itself at 147 Christopher Street for weekly meetings. ‘Spiral’ –the name was suggested by Woodruff as a reference to the Archimedean spiral that moves outward, embracing all directions—had a single exhibition in their Christopher Street location First Group Showing: Works in Black and White in 1965. First Group Showing—many of the paintings in the inaugural show can be viewed in the current exhibition—constitutes a fascinating exploration of social change embedded in the medium of painting. ‘Spiral’ limns every Modernist tactic—abstraction, social realism, collage, printmaking, black and white chromatic reduction, protest art—into a single artistic consciousness devoted to liberation for all. Emily G. Hanna—a curator at the Birmingham Museum of Art where ‘Spiral’ first was exhibited—quotes the original show’s catalogue:
We, as Negroes, could not fail to be touched by the outrage of segregation, or fail to relate to the self-reliance, hope, and courage of those persons who were marching in the interest of man’s dignity…if possible, in these times we hoped with our art to justify life…to use only black and white and eschew other coloration. This consideration, or limitation, was conceived from technical concerns; although the deeper motivations may have been involved…what is important now, and what has great portent for the future, is that Negro artists of divergent backgrounds and interests, have come together on terms of mutual respect. It is true to their credit that they were able to fashion art works lit by beauty, and of such diversity.
Black and white serves as multiple metaphors in 'Spiral's' sole exhibition. By ‘eschewing other colorations’ ‘Spiral’ artists demand that the viewer look at the quality of the work, not the ‘color line’ in which artworks—and people—are often viewed. Black and white has a rich tradition in Modern painting—Pollock and de Kooning had recently experimented with their own chromatic reduction—that is radically de-segregated by the ‘Spiral’ artists. No longer would Modernism be the sole provenance of white Europeans—who had quietly carried off most of its formal language from anonymous African artists—and their progeny. Instead the ‘Spiral’ artists would speak with their own pictorial language. Operating from a unified consciousness ‘Spiral’ members were not disenfranchised U.S. citizens in search of hand out exhibitions from the establishment but singular artists operating out of strength and conviction. The fact that the artists of ‘Spiral’ chose painting, collage and printmaking—seen from the 70s onward as hidebound and conservative—is a testament to the contribution these artists made to mid-century artistic practice as well as a singular contribution to the advancement of civil rights in America. Perhaps the history of the American Negro—and the African American artist—was the history of strife. Certainly the time period of ‘Spiral’ was riven with change. Today it is the work of these artists that stands testament to their achievement, works lit by beauty, and of such diversity.
|Norman Lewis |
Oil on canvas, 44 ¼ x 56 in.
Conjure Woman, 1964
Photo projection on paper, 64 x 50 in.
Black and White II, c. 1960
Monoprint on rice paper, 48 x 36 in.
Africa and the Bull, c. 1958
Oil on canvas, 44 ¼ x 52 3/4 in
Oil on canvas, 50 x 46 in
Oil on paper, 19 x 24 in.
Merton D. Simpson
Untitled (Angry Young Man), 1965
Oil on canvas, 30 x 20 in.
Oil on canvas, 42 3/8 x 32 in.
The Studio Museum in Harlem
Oil on canvas, 54 x 46 in